We’re starting to see the consequences of risk-averse publishing, and it’s exactly what the literary world fears the most.

If you’re interested in embarking on a relatively brief publishing-related thought experiment, consider the following dilemma:

  • In France, author Marco Koskas’ latest book Bande de Français is rejected by traditional publishing venues.
  • Koskas then decides to go the route of self-publishing and takes the book to Amazon, where it is published and sold exclusively.
  • Bande de Français garners much acclaim and is subsequently longlisted for a prestigious literary award, the Prix Renaudot, by a jury of experts.
  • Booksellers across France are outraged by this development. The Syndicat de la librairie française, which represents French booksellers, says that “[the jury’s] move rewards the company [Amazon] threatening their livelihood” and call for the award — and Koskas’ book — to be boycotted.

The question at the heart of the issue is: who should these booksellers really be pointing their finger at when it comes to Amazon’s publishing win and their own comparative misfortune?

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Courtesy of Metropolitan Library System

Well, it’s not Amazon, as much as I disagree with many of its decisions surrounding books. Sure, as the booksellers say in the article, Amazon “does not just want to become a major player in the book market, it wants to become the market.” Sure, Amazon is a shambling corporate empire. But it has tapped into the publishing industry by giving a platform to authors who can’t find a place in traditional publishing, and it’s not Amazon’s fault — or merit — that the book found success. As the author of the book said, “Amazon has no literary opinion…They do not get involved with what I write. They don’t ask for money to print my book, and they are paid, like any matchmaker, when the product sells. What do I have to complain about?”

On that note, certainly it’s not the author we should be pointing the finger at down the line either. I’m a firm believer that an author’s highest obligation is to their work and their readers, and whatever path they choose that results in their words being published is viable and fair enough. In this case, the author in question had been published traditionally a number of times and simply found no success there for this book. While we don’t know why he was rejected by mainstream publishing, we can’t blame him for doing what was best for him, his book, and his readership. Clearly, it was a good move on his part.

It’s also not the jury of the prize, which is responsible for selecting books based solely on their quality and merit. One of the jurors said that the book was one of the season’s “most original, most interesting” and that its freshness and intelligence made it stand out. That says nothing of the route it took to make its way into the juror’s hands (i.e. Amazon); the author’s writing spoke for itself and was rewarded for it.

Ultimately, if booksellers are going to be angry with anyone in this situation, it should be with mainstream publishers.

Here’s the truth: Publishers are becoming more and more reluctant to take on newness. Publishing has been an industry long enough that the most successful publishers know what sells and what won’t; but I think the tides are at a turning point where that complacency is starting to take a toll on traditional publishing, as well as on the authors who feed into it.

The authors of today have new, fresh ideas, and they want to be heard. With publishers being reluctant to take risks on those ideas, we’re going to see more and more talented writers turn to self-publishing outlets like Amazon just to get their work out there and gain some kind of foothold in an extremely tough industry. Self-publishing gives writers the economy to greenlight themselves when no one else will give them the time of day, and traditional publishing can’t expect authors to stagnate while the industry at large remains unwilling to adapt.

The booksellers in this situation did lose out, but I think they’ve misdirected their anger. Traditional publishing is the culprit, and publishers should take this as a cautionary tale about how important it is today to be receptive and supportive of diversity and originality. Authors will find a way to make their voices heard; will publishing find a way to nurture them?

Let me know what you think, and happy reading!

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